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Series Review, Broken, BBC by Gareth Williams

5 Stars5 / 5

Father Michael Kerrigan is the latest name to add to the growing pantheon of priests appearing on our television screens in recent years. Following in the footsteps of Tom Hollander (Rev), James Norton (Grantchester) and Mark Williams (Father Brown) is another acting heavyweight, Sean Bean. Bean takes the lead role in writer Jimmy McGovern’s latest drama, Broken. The six-part BBC series has seen Kerrigan battling his own personal demons whilst acting as counsellor, social worker and friend to his parishioners. The narrative has been suitably gritty, tackling poverty and injustice unashamedly through the lens of social realism. It is, of course, what McGovern does best. It could even be argued that Broken is among his best work.

Sean Bean is a fascinating lead actor. He is utterly mesmerising here. The emotion etched on his face conveys perfectly the inner turmoil and wretched guilt of his character. There is no need for words. He makes Kerrigan so likable, so genuine. It is hard not to fall in love with his character. His flaws and his mistakes and his heartfelt pleas only increase our empathy for the man. Kerrigan is broken. Yet in his brokenness we see something of our humanity – for better and for worse.

The opening credits seem to capture this sense of conflict perfectly. It is so beautifully melancholic: the heart-rending tones of Nina Simone singing “Human kindness is overflowing/ And I think it’s going to rain today”. It is this overwhelmingly positive image streaked with an impending sense of despair that wonderfully encapsulates the stories at the heart of this drama. In particular, the investigation into the death of Vernon Oyenusi (Jerome Holder) places a focus on PC Andrew Powell (Mark Stanley) as he wrestles with the personal and professional consequences of telling the truth. He wants to do the right thing, but there is a cost for doing so.

McGovern finds rich material here. He touches on some of the hypocrisies of the institutional church. He tackles issues of homosexual acceptance and the morality of gambling. There is also the moment when Kerrigan faces up to one of his former teachers who, as we see in flashbacks, abused him. The lack of remorse shown by Father Matthew (Robert Gillespie) is infuriating to say the least. Yet Kerrigan’s response is measured. He doesn’t lash out in justifiable rage yet the emotional anger underneath is evident in this incredible exchange. Again, Bean’s acting is masterful.

The standout episode of this fascinating series has to be the fourth offering. It finds single mother Roz (Paula Malcomson) facing up to the reality of her fraudulent past. She owes over £200,000 to her employer and confesses to Father Michael that her only way out is to take her own life. It is complete dramatic perfection from McGovern: raw, heart-breaking, full of understated emotion and grounded in the ordinary reality of daily life. It is also where Broken becomes an ensemble piece rather than simply a protagonist-led drama.

Jimmy McGovern is a master at creating fully-formed and multi-layered characters. The leading light in this drama is certainly Kerrigan. However, as the series progresses, he becomes like the candle he lights to declare the presence of Christ. This simple yet powerful motif reflects Kerrigan’s role in the community: he is present amongst his parishioners but he is no superman solving all their problems. He is there for them, but he is helpless as much as he is helpful. He is part of their lives, but they have their own stories to tell – he does not define their decisions or determine their choices necessarily.

The place that McGovern gives to Father Michael Kerrigan is far less certain than the clear morality of Sidney Chambers’ crime-solving world in Grantchester. Yet it is somewhat more assured than the struggle for relevance that faces Adam Smallbone in Rev. This is what makes Broken such a fascinating series, particularly in the canon of TV shows with a clerical protagonist. For McGovern, the church remains a place where hope is found. But this hope is expressed through the individual (Kerrigan) rather than the institution (as represented by Adrian Dunbar’s  Father Peter Flaherty). In this way, the final scene makes perfect sense. Being critical, it could be seen as a little too perfect, almost sentimental. Nevertheless, it still elicited a few tears from me in response.

Broken is an excellent and inspiring drama. It continues Jimmy McGovern’s reign as one of Britain’s best and most provocative of writers. The acting talents of Sean Bean, et al. only add to the sheer quality on display here. It is surely one of 2017’s best dramas.